New public art procurement process

Consider the commissioning process for public art. Artists spend days working on proposals, grinding through hundreds of points, jumping through paper hoops, trying to put their art into words. As well, they have to design an almost complete work that only has to be fabricated. Days, if not weeks …

Installation view of Mikala Dwyer Apparition, 2021 night-time digital projection onto holo-gauze screen. Photo by Darren Tanny Tan

And then they don’t get the commission because of hundreds of reasons. It could have gone to another artist or an architecture firm with a staff member specialising in creating beautiful CAD rendering of designs. Leaving them wondering if all that work was worth it.

It is a process that was designed in another century when the choice was between different statues of the same hero. It was about who could produce the best quote to erect some carved stone or cast bronze. Now public art can be a permanent sculpture to a temporary audio installation; it is comparing apples to underwear. The brief for a commission is about addressing a long list of themes and other obscure planning and budgeting requirements becoming a bureaucratic hunger games.

So it was good to hear someone other than an artist explain why the procurement model of the commission process is no longer fit for purpose. Instead, the City of Melbourne is trying out an alternative, a governance-led model. This brings the relevant people together at the start of the process, for many people are involved in public art, including city engineers, maintenance…    

The artist for the program is selected not from a long and detailed proposal but a far shorter, job-application-like, based on their previous work. And rather than responding to the commission document, the artist is involved in a collaborative discussion from the start

This new approach has been tested with a temporary work, Apparition, by Mikala Dwyer. Her holographic possum can be seen at University Square in Carlton intermittently for the next six months. And this new approach is planned to next be used to acquire new permanent works. 

Amy Barclay, the Public Art Project Lead for the City of Melbourne, didn’t have much time to explain all the details of the city’s new approach at a forum on public art hosted by Mars Gallery but the image comparing the size of the applications was dramatic.

The forum, Public Art Now, creating new public art from commissioning to fabrication. From the people like Lisa Dunlop, Manager for Urban Design and Urban Planning at the Level Crossing Removal Project, who are commissioning art, to the consultants like Andy Dinan of Mars Gallery who advise and facilitate, the artists, represented that night by Lisa Roet, who create the art (see my post on her sculpture), and the fabricator Jason Waterhouse, makes it.

That Fundrêre Foundry, a traditional bronze casting enterprise, now has an art fabricator indicates an ongoing change in the materials used for public art. However, aside from the environmental mitigation consideration by the artist and the fabricator, there have been few other changes in creating public art. So the City of Melbourne’s new approach tried in their ‘Test Sites’ commissions represents an improvement not in the art but in the process of making it.

About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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